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Why are cigarette butts the most littered item on earth?

Since the 1980s, cigarette butts have consistently made up 30 to 40 percent of all items collected in annual international coastal and urban cleanups. That means cigarettes, which also top America’s list of most littered things, have the longstanding distinction of being the most littered item on earth, with about 4.5 trillion cigarettes discarded each year worldwide.

Why does cigarette litter remain so commonplace, even in the U.S., where smoking rates have gone down? Three factors help explain.

1. Cigarette butts can take many years to break down.

Nearly all — 98 percent — of cigarette filters are made of plastic fibers. The plastic, cellulose acetate, only degrades under severe biological circumstances, such as when filters collect in sewage. In practice, cigarette butts tossed on streets and beaches do not biodegrade. Even under optimal conditions, it can take at least nine months for a cigarette butt to decompose. 

Littered cigarette butts stick around for a long time and leach toxic chemicals — such as arsenic (used to kill rats) and lead, to name a few — into the environment, leading to land, water and air pollution. 

Take it from truth®, which is spreading awareness of toxic cigarette litter with an animated video called “Better Butts.”

2. Littering remains a common method of disposing butts.  

Call it a product design flaw. Even as communities have attempted to curb cigarette litter with disposal receptacles and smoke-free policies, discarding cigarette butts in a fire-safe manner remains a challenge in many places. 

Disposing cigarettes on the ground or out of a car is so common that 75 percent of smokers report doing it. Studies estimate that smokers litter as many as 65 percent of their cigarette butts.

3. Smoking rates are still at epidemic levels.

Tobacco use remains so prevalent — cigarette use rates are nearly 16 percent for adults and 5.4 percent for youth — that it is still the country’s leading cause of preventable death and disease. Americans smoke billions of cigarettes — about 267 billion in 2015 — each year.

Smoking rates that are still high, combined with the common practice of littering butts that do not biodegrade, create conditions that perpetuate toxic cigarette litter. 

Learn more about the impact of tobacco use on the environment.